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Study in evil

The growing abuse scandal inside Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison has brought outrage to Arab countries, and shock to our own. How could American soldiers do something like this? A landmark experiment, dating back more than 30 years, may provide some insights into behavior that's inexcusable.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

They're the photographs that have horrified the world: prisoners in Iraq stripped of their clothes, and their dignity, allegedly beaten, tortured and humiliated, their American guards watching, posing and smiling. The growing abuse scandal inside Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison has brought outrage to Arab countries, and shock to our own. How could American soldiers do something like this? A landmark experiment, dating back more than 30 years, may provide some insights into behavior that's inexcusable.

The landmark psychological experiment recorded dramatic scenes that seem as though they're straight out of a real prison. That experiment explored a fundamental question about human nature.

Zimbardo: “What would you do if you had total power over the people, would you abuse it?”

What psychology professor Philip Zimbardo found reveals terrifying truths about the capacity for evil within all of us, and may help explain why seemingly ordinary Americans serving in Iraq could be caught up in the shocking prison scandal there. Pictures of the sadistic behavior of some guards have angered and disgusted people across America and around the world.

Zimbardo: “What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Do the people overwhelm the evil or does the evil of the situation overwhelm the good people?”

Playing prison in college basement

In order to find out about the impact of power in certain situations, Zimbardo created his own "evil" environment, a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Thirty years ago, he took ordinary people, just like you and me, and gave half absolute power, as guards, and made the other half totally powerless, as prisoners. Then he stepped back and let human nature take over.

Zimbardo gave his student "guards" a few guidelines, but no formal training -- and they quickly discovered how seductive wielding power over others could be. Just as in Iraq, the lack of proper training of U.S. guards has been cited as a contributing factor in the abuse of prisoners there. In Zimbardo's study, Dave Eshleman was one of those assigned as a guard.

Eshleman: “Gosh, I guess you'd have to say I was pretty much a normal kid.”

This 18-year-old college sophomore was an affable drama buff who had just landed the role of a lifetime. One of the prisoners was 19-year-old college student Richard Yacco. The prisoners-to-be, who signed up for $15 a day, were surprised when real police staged arrests at their homes. They were booked, fingerprinted and then blindfolded and transported to the mock prison, their new home for the next two weeks.

There the guards stripped them naked and sprayed them with deodorant, as if they were being deloused. The humiliation had only begun. Tiny university offices were turned into locked cells, complete with metal bars suitable for hard time.

Zimbardo: “So there are three beds, each about 3 feet wide, and this entrance, and there's nothing else.”

Patrolling the halls were themake-believe guards. They dressed up in military-style khakis, brandished billy clubs and donned mirrored sunglasses.

Eshleman: “You get a certain amount of power if you can stare into somebody's eyes and they can't see your eyes.”

Creative evil

Zimbardo put the guards in charge and gave them total control. Although physical violence was off-limits, the guards learned quickly that psychological abuse could also be an effective form of humiliation -- like forcing a prisoner to sing about freedom.

Zimbardo: “You're not hitting somebody, you're not cursing them. That was creative evil.”

Meantime, Dave Eshelman was relishing the greatest power he'd ever had in his 18-year-old life.

Eshleman: “When I came in the second day, that's when I decided to see where I could go with it.”

The guards' treatment angered prisoners like Richard Yacco.

Yacco: “I didn't expect to have a chain on my ankle, and I didn't expect to have my sleep disrupted.”

As Eshleman and his fellow guards increased the harassment and degradation, Yacco and fellow prisoner Doug Korpi, started a rebellion, barricading themselves inside their cells, and refusing to take orders. It took the guards four long hours to regain control of their prison. And once they did, they were going to make the prisoners pay.

Zimbardo: “Now this is revenge time. Now this is going to show them who was really in charge.”

James: “From the day of the rebellion, everything changed in your prison.”

Zimbardo: “Everything changed.”

Experiment spins out of control

The guards were so infuriated by the rebellion and the challenge to their authority, they began tightening the screws. They forced the prisoners to scrub toilet bowls with their bare hands, suspended shower privileges, even made prisoners use buckets in their cells -- which couldn't be emptied until the next day.

Zimbardo: “And here is this stink from the urine and the feces that they've been defecating in the bucket. People are taking this very, very seriously.”

No one more seriously than Dave Eshleman.

Eshleman: ”Instead of just being a passive guard, I'm going to be a mean son-of-a-bitch guard. I'm going to intimidate these people.”

James: “The prisoners had a nickname for you.”

Eshleman: “They called me John Wayne.”

Yacco: “He really seemed to be the one that was, well, at some times sadistic.”

Dave Eshleman, aka John Wayne, even brazenly broke Zimbardo's key rule of no physical contact by stepping on the back of this prisoner, who isn't fighting back at all. The escalating intimidation and the deteriorating conditions had a devastating effect on several prisoners, including the two leaders of the rebellion, Doug Korpi and Richard Yacco. The guards had broken them down and they had to be released.

Zimbardo: “You put people in positions of power and give them symbols of power and the power corrupts.”

And the power was corrupting John Wayne.

Eshleman: “I think that the guards, including me, didn't know how far they could take this. And as we saw the things we could get away with, it emboldened us to take, you know, the next step.”

Yacco: “You know, he's using us like puppets. It's very inhuman.”

Zimbardo: “The guards now had a set of playthings, and each night they would think of more and more creatively evil things to do with their playthings, with their prisoners. And all of them were demeaning, humiliating.”

That includes sexually tinged encounters – impossible not to compare with the abused and helpless prisoners from the Abu Ghraib prison.

James: “What are you thinking as you watch that [video of the experiment]?”

Eshleman: “Just the crazy, sort of arbitrary, degrading…”

James: “This was sadistic.”

Eshleman: “Yeah, you bet it was.”

James: “It never occurred to you that you could be harming them?”

Eshleman: “No, never crossed my mind.”

Dave Eshleman says 30 years ago, he had no idea that forcing prisoners to embrace, and taunting them with tirades backed up by a club could dehumanize his fellow students.

James: “How far do you think you could have taken it?”

Eshleman: “When you look at the tape you say, 'My God, you did all of this, you know? You inflicted all of this cruelty on your fellow human beings.'What more could you have done?' Don't know.”

And Zimbardo says while some guards pushed the envelope, many others quietly stood by and let it happen -- and he holds them equally responsible.

Zimbardo: “The good guards never, ever challenged the bad guards. Never once said, ‘Hey, why are you going crazy? Why are you getting into this so much? Why are you doing this?’”

James: “So you are saying they're complicit because they didn't do anything?”

Zimbardo: “They keep the system going. Evil persists in the world not only because there are bad people who do these terrible things, but it almost always is a silent majority who know what's going on and don't challenge it.”

Eshleman: “Where would Hitler be today if somebody had said this is wrong or try to stop him? I mean, how many lives would have been saved if just, you know, somebody stood up and said, no!”

Ouside perspective leads to experiment halt

By the end of day five, with the guards relishing their power trip, Zimbardo's experiment was out of control -- until one woman came to watch. Dr. Christina Maslach was a recent Ph.D., psychology graduate and former student of Zimbardo's.

Maslach: “I couldn't actually look at it. That's when I really began to feel sick to my stomach.”

Zimbardo: “And I said, ‘What's the matter?’ And she said, ‘I think it's terrible what you're doing to those boys. They're not subjects. They're not guards. They're not prisoners. They're boys.’”

Maslach: “I just sort of turned away. And he got upset and angry.”

Zimbardo: “And we had this huge argument. And in the middle of this argument, I suddenly stop and say, ‘God, you're right. You're right. Of course.’ I mean, it's like a slap in the face. Wow!”

At that moment he realized what he'd created. The prison had become so real, he'd lost his own decency and perspective. Dr. Zimbardo recognized that his planned two-week study was so dangerous, it had to end immediately after only five days.

Reflecting on lessons learned

James: “What do you think would have happened if your experiment had continued?”

Zimbardo: “Oh, I hate to even think about it.”

James: “Are you sorry that you did this?”

Zimbardo: “Yes and no.”

James: “Are you sorry that you put these kids through this experiment?”

Zimbardo: “I'm sorry that they suffered. I'm not sorry we did the study.”

Because, he said, lessons were learned and lives were changed. Like Doug Korpi, the rebellion leader who broke down and had to be released.

Korpi: “I wanted to understand myself, so I went into psychology.”

For the past quarter century, he's been a psychologist in the San Francisco correctional system.

Korpi: “The Stanford prison was a very benign prison situation. And it still caused guards to become sadistic, prisoners to become hysterical.”

Dr. Christina Maslach, now a vice provost at California-Berkeley, stayed close to the man she snapped back to reality -- and then married. And of course, her husband, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, is still teaching at Stanford about the abuses of power -- then and now.

Zimbardo: “What would you do if you had total power over other people, would you abuse it? Oh no, I wouldn't do it. Well, our study says chances are pretty good that you might abuse it.”

James: “Are you ashamed of that now?”

Eshleman: “Well, I'm ashamed of the way that I behaved, yeah. It's, you know, not the way I live my life, believe me.”

Today, Dave Eshleman is a husband, father, and owner of his own mortgage company. He’s a nice guy, a decent guy, an everyman who once did terrible things in a lab setting.

Eshleman: “Assuming that I was this evil monster, how far could I have taken this? Given the right time and circumstances, I think we all have a place in us that's capable of this.”

Those are haunting words from a disturbing experiment that seemed to foreshadow sadistic acts in an Iraqi prison, 30 years later.

Experiments like the one at Stanford are no longer done -- for obvious ethical reasons. But the lessons from Dr. Zimbardo's study are still being taught in psychology classes across the country.